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    China's Toxic Trade

    Xuecheng Hou, a wealthy Chinese businessman who linked to wildlife contraband trafficking, has also emerged as a major player in the illegal trade in rare African timber in sub-Saharan Africa.
    Evidence shows Chinese timber loggers took advantage of a legal loophole that allows rural communities to harvest the timber such as the rosewood, Mukula (bloodwood trees) for their own domestic use. According to a four-year investigation conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an advocacy group indicated that illegal logging activities haunted most part of Sub-Saharan African in south-eastern Angola, northern-east Namibia, Zambia, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The (EIA) discovery pointing out more extensively on Chinese firm that used political bribery, corruption, tax evasion and cheating the environmental law. None of the African countries benefited from Chinese logging beside ecosystem destruction.

    ''According to evidence collected by EIA, the (Chinese) Group has continuously broken the most fundamental forest laws, has turned timber trade regulations upside-down, and has diverted millions in unpaid taxes from the governments of Gabon and the Republic of Congo,'' the report said. EIA said the company operated by Xu Gong De manages 1.5 million hectares of rain forest in the two nations while logging with illegally obtained licenses and routinely overharvesting timber. EIA said there are several affiliated companies involved in the harvest, transport, processing and export of timber, including Sino Congo Forêt (SICOFOR) “Forest crimes covered by high-level corruption tightly linked to the inner working elites.


    Exports of Namibian timber to China have increased tenfold, from just 22 truckloads in 2015 to more than 208 truckloads this year. In total, 3200 tonnes of Namibian timber exported to China in 2018 alone. This figure has doubled to 7500 tonnes during January and February this year 2019. These figures, obtained from the Namibian Ports Authority chief executive, Bisey/Uirab, have provided yet more evidence of how Namibia's rare raw timber is being shipped to China at a faster rate than ever before. 

    The statistics also show that the trees being cut down by mainly political elites for sale to the Asian superpower are used to produce luxury furniture and traditional Chinese house decorations. Namport's statistics show that around 800 tonnes of Namibian timber were exported through Walvis Bay to China in 2015; 22 tonnes were shipped out in 2016; and about 200 tonnes in 2017. The 800 tonnes are equal to about 22 legal truckloads on a Namibian road. A truckload weighs approximately 36 tonnes. 

    Data shows that around 302 truckloads of Namibian timber were exported to China from 2017 to 2019. Alpheus !Naruseb who was appointed as agriculture and forestry Minister in 2018 indicated that the statistics paint a picture of how Namibia – a dry country– is selling its rare trees to Asian countries.  The Environment Ministry has pointed a finger to the Agriculture Ministry of dishing out permits to well-connected Namibians at Rundu to cut down forest trees in the north-eastern part of the country. Namibian ports were further used to export 430,700 tonnes of timber from 2013 to 2019, including wood from other southern African countries. This is equal to 12,000 fully loaded trucks.

    Zambia tops the list of countries which have exported its timber through Namibia. The other two countries are the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. The statistics from Namport show that 2760 timber truckloads from that country were exported through the Walvis Bay port. Zambia reportedly banned the harvesting and transportation of rosewood to stop its rapid loss, fuelled by the growing demand for the timber in Asia. According to an article found on the www.conversation.com, rosewood is a generic name for several dark-red hardwood species found in tropical regions, and fetches high prices because it is strong, heavy, has a beautiful red hue, and takes polish very well.

    Reuters news agency reported in 2017 that Zambia banned the export of logs from all three species of rosewood in 2015, and now only gives export permits for processed or sawn wood, saying it wants to boost the country's timber manufacturing sector. According to media reports, a ton of timber is sold for N$240,000 (SGD 902.80) in China. The secretary of the Mpungu District Farmers Association in Kavango East, Elia Kamati, has defended the sale of timber to China. “They opened the economy to them and everyone else. It's a free market. We are just selling our products to those who are in the market. 

    The farmers are not the ones who brought Chinese here in Namibia. It is them who signed contracts with foreigners, so they come to do business here,” he said. Kamati said he is disappointed that the government has banned the harvesting of timber, adding that they are now being branded as criminals when all they did was follow the procedure permitted to them by the forestry ministry. He also complained that the environmental management plan which they were given to raise revenue from timber will expire in a few years' time without any work done. They are losing time and hope, he said. /Uirab told The Namibian in March 2019 that their mandate is to process the loading and exporting process at the Walvis Bay and Lüderitz ports. 

    He said the duty to ensure that permits are issued before the harvesting and exporting of timber lies with state agencies, such as the agriculture and forestry ministry, and the Department of Customs at the finance ministry. /Uirab said all timber exports were made with the required documents. “If Namport detects suspicious import or export items, such incidents are brought to the attention of relevant law-enforcement agencies,” he stressed. Under the headline ''Entitled elite'' The Namibian reported that a group of elites from Rundu had flooded the government with applications to cut down 200,000 trees in Kavango East. 

    Such applicants include parliamentarians, government officials, councillors, police bosses, as well as traditional and church leaders who are among 230 individuals who since November 2018 have wanted to cut down rare rosewood trees on land spanning 570,000 hectares. This is more than the combined size of Windhoek and Okahandja. The government banned the cutting and transportation of timber in November this year because of concerns that timber was being harvested without following the correct procedures, as well as broader concerns over damage to the environment caused by logging – mainly in the Kavango East, Kavango West and Zambezi regions. Rosewood is protected worldwide because of over-exploitation. Experts note that some species of the tree take 100 years to reach maturity. In Namibia's sub-continental forests, some of the trees being harvested are 400 years old.


    There’s a moratorium on logging concessions in place in the Congo – a freeze was put in place because there were so many bad contracts handed out in the 1990s. But logging is still being done by certain big companies. There is still a big demand for wood from the DRC, in particular for a tropical hardwood called Wenge, which is actually banned for export from, for example, Cameroon. So people want to come to DRC to export this species. Because they can’t get new concessions, the solution that has been found is to give out what are called artisanal permits to industrial loggers. These permits are intended for communities who want to log in their forest on a small scale, but in reality, they are being given out to industrial companies, to foreign investors, often from China and elsewhere sometimes from Europe, coming to DRC to do industrial-scale logging. 

    The DRC government has not respected its own laws when it has been giving out its own permits. The law is quite clear about how many permits should be given out and to whom. But these rules are not being respected at all levels. Obviously, logging is one of the few things that drive small inward investment in DRC. This is one thing that foreign companies are keen to come here to do. It is economically driven. Our researchers found that what logging leaves behind in terms of development is actually very small. The taxes paid by the companies are actually very small – a few thousand dollars for a permit. It’s not a huge input, but it’s seen as something that can benefit the state or an individual official who allowing the logging.

    Timber transported from Lambarené to the processing factories in Libreville, Gabon. The code allows to identify where they were harvested and is proof of legality. © Deng Jia / WWF.
    Genuine artisanal logging permit doesn’t necessarily have a huge environmental impact because the people involved don’t have destructive capabilities with magnitude to open up new roads into the forest. But with the way these permits are being used industrially, the foreign companies often bring in heavy machinery like bulldozers. They’re opening logging roads into the forest, and after that, the forest becomes degraded quite quickly. It also allows for illegal loggers and poachers to follow them in. It has a very serious environmental impact on the ground. 

    There are more and more Chinese people in DRC involved in logging activities, using these kinds of permits. It isn’t just China – there are also Lebanese and some Europeans – but the majority are Chinese. The analysis shows that 20-25% of Chinese luxury hardwood processed products, for example, go to America and Europe. In Bandundu Province, where the research conducted, the two biggest logging companies ''we visited were Chinese. The main one is called TERCO. It’s a registered Congolese company but it’s a partnership between a Chinese businessman and a Congolese businessman. Quite a lot of companies here work in that way, through partnerships''. The companies understandably they have a permit signed by someone in high authority. ''Actually, they don’t feel like they’re breaking the law.

    But we would say that all sorts of companies working here have the responsibility not just to go to the authorities, get a piece of paper signed by someone and start working. In a lot of African countries, you can get a permit signed by an official, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are following regulations. The artisanal logging permits should be for the local loggers, and not for foreign companies. 

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